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Digital: A Conversation With A Soundsystem OG

Digital makes music to shake systems. Whether it’s solo or collaboratively with Spirit, Total Science, Drumsound & Bassline Smith or any of the other luminaries he’s collaborated with over the years it’s the most defining characteristic of his music: Proper sub-loaded rollers with enough weight, space and clarity they physically shift you. The type of tracks that cut through the bass bins at 3am and result in you making decisions that change your life forever.

You need proof? Ask anyone who was present when he first dropped Deadline (largely cited as one of the earliest halftime records), started a riot and caused the club to be shut down.

Ask Metalheadz who organised a white jag limousine to pick him up when he was released from prison in the mid 90s. Then ask Metalheadz again because they’re about to release his latest EP In The Lurch.

His first solo EP on the label for decades, it’s yet another bullet hole in the heart of his discography that features over 20 years of releases on influential labels such as Timeless, Reinforced, C.I.A, his own Function imprint and many more. From the dark dub toxicity of Ras 78 and lean raw power of Gateman right up to last year’s collaboration concept album Synthesis and into the future, from labels such as Dispatch to his own Function imprint, Digital has continued to stay true to his own singular sound and never lost his focus on the dance.

The Metalheadz EP marks the start of new series of missions for the Ipswich artist; he’s building a new Void Acoustics soundsystem, he’s got a whole stack of releases due (both solo and with original wingman Spirit) and is launching his own night at Lightbox, London, this Friday where he’ll be joined by the likes of John B, Randall, Storm and more. With more plans in the pipeline, Digital remains as ardent and focussed on his craft as he was when he emerged with Photek in 1995.

Get to know…

I heard you had a proper club soundsystem in your house?

Yeah I got some fat speakers around the place. I’m mainly using this little Turbosound set-up and I’m actually waiting on a Void Acoustics system which are another level. But yeah I got different speakers all around the house. I’ve loved them since I was a kid and collect them. It means I can move around house making tunes. I never get cabin fever – I just pick up the laptop and move to a new one. I move speakers around too because your ears get tired of one set of speakers.

Are all the rooms in your house acoustically treated then?

No mate! I got a bit of treatment up in the main studio but that’s not what writing a tune is about – you can write a tune anywhere. You can make a tune in a tin shed. You can’t mix one down in a tin shed but anywhere you can get a vibe on, you can make a tune. The mixdown is a totally different thing. Then you do need to be in a decent studio and mix down on decent speakers. Plus then you’re out of the pressure of the studio where you feel you have to deliver something. When you’re messing around and getting vibe on you’re free to make what you want.

Which of your percy favourites were written in that type of way?

Almost all of them. Loads of my original tracks were made in a one bedroom, no acoustics but always decent speakers.

Do you come from a soundsystem family?

Yeah my dad had one. I was around speakers, amplifiers and records all my life. We were skint but we had music and food and at the time that’s all I needed. I’m the youngest so I was hearing all types of music from my sisters and brother, too. My dad was out every weekend with his system at the Ipswich Caribbean Club so I experienced everyone having heaps of fun to music and getting drunk…. I had the bug right from there.

Kinda backs up what a lot of your peers say: Digital makes music for systems

I do. I reckon my tunes sound rubbish on phones or laptops. They’re not made for it. They’re made for a club. It’s all bass-led, there’s no decoration. Just drums and bass… Funnily enough! I do like it simple and the full focus is on the rhythm. Maybe a little riff sound. Just three things that will grab you.

Is that approach the reason why you were one of the earliest people to make halftime?

I think my background and love for dub and reggae led me to make halftimey type of stuff, whether I was one of the earliest people or not. That was where I came from so it was always going to be in my music. Take the bongos on Deadline, for example. I like those bongos and the flavour of the drums themselves, they’re vibrant without the need for anything else. I thought the same about the riff sound, I really didn’t need to dress that up with a load of layers . The bongos and that riff had enough vibe to bring the track together. I’m big on vibes and simplicity hence why I’m a big fan of Doc Scott tracks from the back in the day, they inspired me like no one’s business.

Deadline will never die… I heard there was blood when you first dropped this?

There was. I can still remember it now. I’d made the tune and cut it that day and was playing this little church hall vibe venue in St Neots, a little sleepy village in Cambrideshire. It was a proper little rave with 200-300 people. I dropped it and people went fucking mental… A lot of people bunched up dancing then suddenly I see punches, I see teeth, I see all kinds of fucked up stuff. Police arrive and the venue closes for the night. All because of Deadline.

Have any of your other tunes had such a visceral reaction?

No! hahaha.

What’s your relationship like with Deadline? I know some artists really don’t want to hear their biggest tracks ever again…

Yeah I do love it. For a while I didn’t because I’d agreed to do this remix competition and I had to sit through well over a hundred entries and most of them were absolute shit. It turned me off the tune for years. But now I love it again. I’ve got a much better relationship with Space Funk. My first solo tune. I’ll always be proud of that and proud of the fact it was remixed by Goldie, Doc Scott, Futurebound and Photek at the time. That’s my claim to fame! Om Unit’s done a remix and he’s gone in dirty!

What your relationship with halftime now?

I’m hearing too many one-note, no-vibe, too-dark halftime tunes at the moment. There’s some good stuff but too much of it is head-nodding music. I’m much more of a vibe man.

It’s sprawling, though. You got the jump-up halftime, the hip-hop halftime, the neuro halftime – every subgenre has got its own take on it.

Oh yeah and there’s some good bits in every sub-sub-sub-sub-genre I’m sure. But the problem is once you put a name on something everyone jumps on it. They see a hype and they jump on it and I really don’t get it. Surely everyone wants to hear someone do their own thing and not just copy what’s popular? Think about it; you’ve chosen to make music for life, you can do ANYTHING. You can take your time, you can experiment, you can do what the fuck you want because you’re making music. But instead you’re just jumping on a bandwagon. I’ll never be able to understand that.

Who’s exciting you at the moment?

Response. All day long. He doesn’t give a fuck. He’ll try all types of sounds and ideas, he doesn’t care, he’s not making a sound for a particular label or clique, he’ll happily try anything. Sometimes, I won’t lie, it’s just horrible. But other times it’s like ‘fucking hell mate! What even is this?’ He’s expressing himself, he’s using his own resources and references, he’s killing it and has been for several years on Ingredients. I just wish he would spread his beats a bit more! He’s got this tune I’ve been playing for ages called Only You. You can tell it’s made wholly by vibe. Tough liquid, 2000-era Calibre-esque, it’s beautiful.

You could use that description on Sun Bites…

I guess. I worked with Villem on that one. I love that rough with the smooth feeling. That’s my reggae days again – proper dirty beats and big bass and really smooth Dennis Brown or Gregory Isaacs vocals. When that balance of shades is right there’s nothing better.

Is this your first solo Headz EP since Niagra in 96? I know you’ve had tracks on the label and had the Wolf EP with Spirit but not a solo EP

You know what? I think it is! I’ve had a track on every Platinum Breaks album but yeah, this is my first full EP for a little while. 21 years. I hadn’t thought of that – mad to think that the last EP was released as I just came out of jail.

So your track Metro, part of the original Platinum Breakz album, must have come out while you were in jail. How did you manage that?

Kemi and Storm found my track Metro on a DAT I sent them so basically I got lucky. When I was released from jail the Metalheadz crew organised a white Jag limo to pick me up with my girlfriend and my cash advance for the track!

BALLER!

Yeah it was a nice touch, I can’t lie.

It must have been frustrating being locked up just as your career is kicking off?

No it was the opposite. When you’re in jail you need something to look forward to – somebody, a family, a chance at something. Something good you can focus on. So because I knew I had a chance at music it meant I kept my head down. No drama. No trouble. No borrowing or lending because that always ends in tears in jail so I kept away from everyone.

I’ve got to ask, what you were locked up for?

Conspiracy to defraud. It was bollocks and I was made an example of but I had a dodgy record from petty things in the past and this was the final straw. It was gonna happen, I sorted myself out, we learn from these things…

Back to the EP. Why is it named after the digital bonus track?

Because it’s a sick title. I’m hardly going to call my EP Sun Bites am I? And also I have been in the lurch with operations I had to have on my face.

Can I ask what?

Basically my hair is stupidly curly, so curly it fucks with my skin coming through my face. It got madly out of hand, was really painful and an arsehole to live with. You can see the scars. I needed an operation and it was all booked in, I was there and ready and beginning to relax knowing it would soon be done then last minute they cancelled it. I was fuming. Me and my missus went back to the hotel we were staying in by the hospital and we ended up getting hammered and making that in the hotel.

You made a tune with your missus? Awwwww…

Yeah LJC. She gave me every sample on that tune. Except for the drums. We’ve done one or two tracks like that. I had to put her name on it – rude not to innit.

You’re a big collab man aren’t you?

Yeah you get something completely different when you’re vibing with someone else don’t you? I don’t think everyone can do it. There’s a lot of negotiating going back and forth. Egos. Respect for each other’s work and finding out what each other’s best at. Sometimes it’s hard when you’re collaborating with guys as fucking talented as Spirit and Total Science. Might as well leave them to it…

There’s more Digital & Spirit stuff coming isn’t there?

Yeah we’re working on things for an album

WHAT?

Early days and all that but there’s definitely something happening in that direction…

What was it like getting back in to studio after so long? Was it easy or a bit of a challenge?

A bit weird at first, yeah. We had to swallow the ego shit. It’s not like anything big happened in the past. We just had to stop being arses and we had friends like Storm to tell us to do that.

Storm and Spirit are both playing at your night this Friday… Is this going to be a regular thing?

Yeah hopefully. That Void Acoustics system I was talking about earlier on – eventually the plan is to take it round clubs. It will be hosted by MC Blackeye and feature guests like AD, GQ, Moose and Conrad. I also want to develop specialist sessions such as deep dubbed out jungle flavours with regulars like Amit, Nomine, myself and Flava and maybe guests like Loxy, Double O or Om Unit. The other vibe will be with Storm, Spirit, Total Science, Response and guests like Randall and Klute.

I’m not trying to do a Dillinja here. I just want to have a system with roots to what I’m all about. The idea is to have a group of artists connected to the soundsystem so people will know exactly what the Function:al Sessions is all about. Furthermore, this is the way I’ve experienced soundsystem culture all my life.

Join Digital, John B, Storm, Spirit, Randall, Double O, Chef and Flava Friday April 7 for Function:al @ Lightbox London: Tickets and info

Digital – In The Lurch EP is out April 12: Support

Follow Digital: Facebook / Soundcloud / Twitter

Watch out for Spirit – Stalker EP, out late May on Function